If you have or want an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) a/k/a “Drone” then you should be familiar with the laws governing drones. This article is focused on providing a basic outline of current regulations for drone operations. Drones are regulated by the FAA because they are considered aircraft and in certain circumstances, state and local governments may regulate drone operations. Violations of the regulations may result in a FAA enforcement action, steep civil penalties, and/or criminal charges.
Drone owners and operators must comply with FAA regulations. The FAA defines small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) as an aircraft that is operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or onboard the aircraft. A small drone is a UAS that weighs less than 55 pounds. This definition includes drones such as one manufactured by DJI or most model airplanes & helicopters.
All drones, unless less than 55 pounds, must be registered with the FAA at a cost of $5.00. The owner must be 13 years of age or older or the parent must register. The registration number must be placed on the drone. The owner must be a US citizen, however, a foreign nation may register a recognition of ownership but may only operate for hobby use. Failure to register a drone may result in a significant civil penalty in the amount of $27,500 and criminal sanctions up to $250,000 and/or 3 year criminal penalty. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has ruled the FAA lacked authority to require registration. Therefore, unless overturned or Congress grants such authority, non-commercial drones are not currently subject to this regulation.
The FAA primarily regulates drone flight though 14 C.F.R. 107. Section 336 already exempts model aircraft from FAA regulations. The FAA defines model aircraft as an aircraft that is:
- used solely for hobby use and no compensation of any kind;
- operated within visual line of sight;
- avoids other aircraft;
- weighs less than 55 pounds; and
- operated in accordance with community-based safety guidelines.
You must notify ATC (air traffic control /tower) if flown within 5 miles of an airport and you may not operate the drone in a careless or reckless manner. Although you are only required to inform ATC of your flight within 5 miles of an airport, the regulations require that you avoid other aircraft, such as local flight patterns. In other words, if ATC says your planned flight will affect operations, you should abide by their recommendations. Otherwise, you will likely have to deal with a civil penalty or enforcement action for violation of the regulations regarding avoiding aircraft and operating in a reckless or careless operation. You also may not operate your drone in restricted airspace.
In addition to careless and reckless regulations, the drone may not be flown by an operator who has a BAC of .04 or has consumed alcohol within 8 hours.
The FAA regulates the commercial operation of a drone through 14 C.F.R. 107. Commercial flight requires that:
- The pilot must have a US Remote Pilot Certificate and recommends a visual observer. The drone may be operated by an unlicensed pilot if supervised by a licensed drone pilot.
- The drone must weigh less than 55 pounds and may not be operated over 100 mph.
- The drone may not be flown over 400’ except around buildings or structures, in which it may be flown up to 400’ above the buildings or structures.
- The drone may not be flown over individuals not involved in the operation, unless they are protected by a structure.
- The drone may not be operated from another aircraft.
- The drone may only be operated from a moving vehicle or marine vessel over sparsely populated areas. (Offshore with no other boats around)
- The operator may only fly one drone a time
- The drone may not carry hazardous material.
- The operator must conduct a preflight inspection of the drone.
- The drone may transport property (non-hazardous) if the drone is not operated from a moving vehicle.
- Commercial flight may only be conducted during daylight hours, unless equipped with lights visible from 3 miles, in which the drone maybe operated during twilight hours. (Note not nighttime)
- The drone must yield right of way to manned aircraft.
- The weather minimums for operating a drone is 3 miles visibility, 500 feet below and 2,000 feet horizontally away from clouds.
- May only be operated within Class G airspace.
You may request a waiver of regulation restrictions through section 336 for flying at night, within airspace other than Class G, flying multiple drones, and flying within a TFR (flight restricted) area. The waivers are requested online and typically take 90 days for approval.
A commercial operator must obtain a FAA remote operator’s license. This license is easier to obtain if the operator is a licensed pilot. Otherwise, the operator must not only obtain a test score of 100%, but must repeat the test every two years. The operator must:
- be at least 16 years old;
- read, speak, and write in English; and
- pass TSA vetting for security threats.
- the operator does not have to pass a medical but must self-certify that he or she is medically fit to operate the drone.
Any accidents resulting in serious bodily injury or property damage in excess of $500 must be reported to the FAA within 10 days. Additionally, Aviation Safety Reporting Program (ASRP) (a/k/a NASA forms) applies to drone operators. When a violation of flight regulations has occurred unintentionally, the airman may report anonymously and provides protection from enforcement in many circumstances.
Although the FAA has sole jurisdiction over airspace , other government entities may regulate police use of drones or prohibit the use of a drone to spy on a neighbor. Local governments may also restrict taking off & landing on public properties, but cannot prohibit a drone simply flying in airspace permitted by FAA regulations while the operator is standing on private land.
Florida has passed Fla. Statute §934.50 which prohibits police from using drones to gather evidence and prohibits a person from recording images of private real-estate or occupants with intent to conduct surveillance. The statute defines expectation of privacy as that which is not observable by a person located at ground level. The law provides for exceptions such as reasonable tasks performed by surveyors, contractors, architects, and aerial mapping.
The law provides a civil remedy to those affected by the operation of a drone over their property or otherwise invading their privacy. The statue allows for civil actions, injunctive relief, compensatory damages, and attorneys’ fees with twice the multiplier if the case goes to trial and possible punitive damages. Florida law also allows recovery of mental anguish in actions for invasion of privacy. While an individual is not allowed to shoot down a drone, there are potential legal causes of actions that could be brought by an individual against the operator or owner of a drone.
The owner and operator may be liable for damages to persons or property as a result of the operation of the drone. Additionally, you may receive a $11,000 civil fine for each rule violation and/or criminal sanctions including $250,000 and/or 3 years criminal penalty for failure to register and $25,000 and/or 5 years for a knowingly and willful violation of a rule.
Drone owners and operators may now join Aircraft Owners & Operators Association (AOPA). In addition to various resources available to members, AOPA offers members enforcement insurance as well as liability insurance for drones. Many insurers, such as Global Aerospace, Allianz, and AIG, offer drone insurance covering your drone and/or liability arising from the operation of the drone.
Drone flying is a fun activity and can be a profitable venture. Just follow the regulations and use proper precautions to avoid the possible legal consequences as much as possible.
This article was written by Coquina Law Group partner, Ashby Underhill. Ashby is a board certified specialist in aviation law by the Florida Bar.